Means of Production

In classical economics, “Means of production” are the necessary conditions for producing things that do not include financial capital or human beings– together, all three elements are termed “factors of production.” Interestingly, Marx apparently used factors of production interchangeably with productive force (paralleling List’s use of political force). Because Marx and Engels proposed that economics were primary, concern over production was central to their technological theories.

Marxist theory is substantially an instrumental theory in that factors of production include instruments of labor and subjects of labor (raw materials). Encountering this usage, I find myself wondering if it’s actually possible to sort instruments into these niche categories. Recall that Engels had argued that instruments of violence  were the source of all political power; a hammer can be used to produce a house, or to bash in someone’s skull. Given that, are such these terms useable in a coherent manner?

It bears noticing that List’s National System  fed directly into National Socialism as it nationalized industry in the name of the Fatherland, seizing not only the factories but also the raw materials to produce a war machine in the name of political force. Mao and Stalin used Marxist theory to justify deploying their workforce in camps and cooperative farms in the name of national economic force. These developments are part of the reason why by the time Hannah Arendt was approaching her terminology in “On Violence” she chose to avoid the term force to describe this type of means, because force had become synonymous with violence.

Arendt’s vocabulary is attractive because it makes it possible to argue from definitions, which does not seem possible with loose categories like instruments of production and instruments of violence. For example, if we define power as separate from strength then it isn’t possible to talk of the “strength” of a nation-state, because strength is defined as an individual characteristic. Power, on the other hand, could be attributed to the confluence of people working together in the nation-state. Her move to distance violence from either of these categories (by definition) contributes a lot to our understanding of it. However, making the claim that violence is instrumental in nature without clearly differentiating it from instrumental production is a dangerous oversight. I’m discovering that Marx has quite a bit to contribute in this area, if not through a clear frame of reference, through demonstrating just how fraught the terminology is.

Force vacillates between productive and destructive impulses that aren’t teased apart easily. Another aspect is deciding if it is singular (like strength) or plural (like power). Questions for another day.